By David Leibowitz
In my first newspaper job 30 years ago, I worked for higher-ups who were, to put it mildly, cretins. One boss, dead now, stood out for his screaming, insults, and the glee he took in being outrageously offensive.
Part of my job was taking part in afternoon news meetings, where this Head Honcho presided over a discussion about what would make tomorrow’s Page One. In one such meeting the focus turned to a homicide committed in a poor part of the city.
The Big Boss had a question. “What persuasion” was the dead man? Informed the victim was Black, he uttered a word I’ll never forget.
The killing was buried deep inside the paper. We all left the disgusted by where we worked and for whom. But nobody objected. I didn’t say a word. Maybe because this was the 1990s, or because I was a coward, new to the job and afraid to be fired. Regardless, I am ashamed to retell the story in print.
I do so because, to hear ESPN tell it, working for the Phoenix Suns under owner Robert Sarver may be a lot like working for that despot — a bully, a misogynist, a racist. These are charges Sarver has denied through his attorneys, including in a lengthy denial released weeks before ESPN published its November 4 story, written by senior writer Baxter Holmes.
Holmes’ piece accuses Sarver of frequently using the N-word, including in the presence of Black employees like then-coach Earl Watson. Holmes says he interviewed more than 70 former and current Suns employees, including executives and at least one co-owner. The story describes “a toxic and sometimes hostile workplace” during Sarver’s 17 years owning the Suns.
Sarver’s denials have been emphatic. “I’ve never called anyone or any group of people the N-word, or referred to anyone or any group of people by the N-word, either verbally or in writing,” he said through his lawyers. “I don’t use that word. It is abhorrent and ugly and denigrating and against everything I believe in.”
The NBA has hired law firm Wachtell Lipton to investigate the charges. Media reports indicate the investigators have offered team employees confidentiality in exchange for their participation in the investigation.
That confidentiality bothers me, as does the confidentiality granted by ESPN to virtually every accuser in the story, essentially everyone quoted with the exception of Earl Watson, who Sarver fired only three games into the 2017 season, after a 48-point defeat that ranks as the worst opening night loss in NBA history.
After three decades writing news, I understand the desire of sources to stay anonymous. But Holmes’ 70 interviewees are not risking their safety or lives in calling out Sarver. The former employees may be risking some career impact. The current Suns employees? They’d be risking a job they might be better off leaving, given the workplace they’ve described.
Had ESPN’s sources used their names, they very well might have been hailed as heroes. In 2021, in the more supportive culture of whistleblowing that exists today, I’d say the chances were 50-50. Regardless, we will never know.
Criticizing their anonymity is easy for me to do. It even brands me a hypocrite. After all, I didn’t have the fortitude to confront a bully when I had the chance, even anonymously. I’m still ashamed by that failure.
I’ve never been a Sarver fan, so denigrating those who have attacked him feels uncomfortable. But I have come to feel strongly about speaking truth to power. Holmes’ story is thorough, but its rampant anonymity leads me to wonder how much of it is gospel truth.
I think it’s better to put your name on the things you say. Every last word.